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As a student in New Jersey in 2017, Gurjap Kaur Kohli, now 17, was proud to be a resident of the first state to mandate teaching about Sikhism in schools. Fast forward six years and she’s happy to see more schools adopting the curriculum.
Now, a total of 18 states and Washington, D.C., have passed bills to teach Sikhism in K-12, with the district being the latest to join the growing list. New Jersey began the trend in 2009. Some of the reasons behind the education push include that Sikhs are a growing population in the U.S., bullying toward Sikh students is increasing — with turbans and beards making the group an easy target — and years of advocacy are paying off.
For students like Kohli, the mandate made her feel seen and helped ease the burden of fielding questions about her religion, the fifth largest worldwide.
“A lot of people started to ask less questions since they felt more educated by learning these things in class,” said Kohli, who live in Monroe Township, a suburb in New Jersey about 45 miles southeast of New York City. “It’s really interesting to see people understand Sikhism more now. It’s nice that people ask less often, so I don’t have to keep re-explaining.”
What the curriculum might look like
Scott Potusek, a social studies teacher in upstate New York, plans a comparative world religions unit in his curriculum each year. When he first taught sixth grade about five years ago, he saw how excited one Sikh student was to learn about the monotheistic religion founded in India.
“It was great to have that experience come out of the religion being included in the standards and seeing the impact that had on the students in the classroom and the direction we took our curriculum in,” Potusek said.
The Sikh population has steadily grown in the U.S. since the late 19th century, contributing to industries like agriculture, health and arts, according to the nonprofit Kaur Foundation. Approximately 750,000 Sikhs live in the U.S. and 30 million worldwide, according to the organization.
The 19 states to include Sikhism in the classroom include three of the four most populous states: California, New York and Texas. Momentum has grown since 2019, with 11 states adopting the curriculum in the last four years.
Potusek, who was raised Catholic, said he reached out to the Sikh Coalition, a national nonprofit advocacy group, for help in understanding the religion for his class’s unit.
His curriculum includes the formation and traditions of Sikhism, like the five articles of the faith: kesh (uncut hair), kara (steel bracelet), kanga (small wooden comb), kachera (undershorts) and a kirpan (resembling a knife or sword). Unshorn hair allows Sikhs to live in the image God has given them, while the kara is a physical reminder of their connection to God.
Potusek’s district expanded its social studies curriculum in 2020 to adhere to New York state standards, which covers an expansive religious unit including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
A response to culture wars
As battles over school curriculums rage on in classrooms and libraries, Harman Singh, Sikh Coalition’s education director, believes education focusing on religion and culture is essential as the political landscape and new legislation make it harder to teach history.
He talks about the importance of historical moments like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which was a catalyst for discrimination, particularly for turbaned Sikhs, and the 2012 Oak Creek, Wisconsin, shooting where a white nationalist killed six people inside a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship. Four people were wounded, one of whom died years later from injuries sustained in the shooting.
Singh also pointed to less remembered events — the 1907 Bellingham Riots in which white labor leaders accused South Asian workers of taking jobs from white workers in Bellingham, Washington. The demands for white labor sparked riots that ended with South Asian workers being driven out of the city.
“A lot of this legislation is intentionally vague and talks about teaching divisive concepts. What is often considered divisive is talking about racial equity,” he said. “When we talk about the inclusion of Sikhism in the modern American context, it’s hard to teach about what happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, without talking about white supremacy. It’s hard to talk about the Bellingham Riots without talking about things like race.”
He said over the last few years, the goal has been to include Sikhism beyond early world history.
“In a historical context alone, we want to make sure that students also learn about the Sikh community’s experiences here in America,” he said. “There’s a story of the modern Sikh experience in today’s world that’s important to be told.”
It’s not enough for a student to learn about the Sikh community historically when they’re in the 11th grade, because up until that time, they’ve had no exposure to the community.
Harman singh education director at sikh coaltion
While the Sikh Coalition has advocated including Sikhism in classroom education for years, Singh emphasized that Asian American Pacific Islander history is also important.
So far, 20 states have mandated the teaching of AAPI history, according to The Asian American Foundation. Efforts have been made to implement a nationwide mandate for AAPI history, with Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., introducing legislation in 2021.
How states choose to teach the curriculum varies, and it’s unclear if Sikhism would be included in the unit or continue to be taught with other world religions.
Preventing bullying through education
The Sikh Coalition found that Sikh students experience bullying at twice the national average. Advocates like Singh believe that educating students from a young age about Sikhism is crucial to combating racism and xenophobia.
“One of the best ways to reduce bullying is through education. As the political dynamics around social studies standards in this country become increasingly divisive, we are finding increased interest and commitment from Sikh community members and coalition partners to fight for inclusive social studies standards,” he said.
Sikh students experienced bullying through social media, in-person altercations and violence, according to the Sikh Coalition. The experience isn’t uncommon for Sikhs who grew up in the diaspora.
A 2020 survey by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that 58 percent of Sikhs said they had been bullied or harassed because of their religious identity. Sixty-three percent of Sikhs also said they faced discrimination for wearing a turban.
Advocacy from the community
As opportunities to revise the social studies curriculum have come up state by state, advocates from nonprofit organizations have worked with local communities to include the history of Sikhism and the influence Sikhs have had in U.S. history in classrooms. Singh said the Sikh Coalition is working with communities in Minnesota and Connecticut to adopt a curriculum with Sikhism. They are also working with Utah, Mississippi and Virginia school districts to develop class syllabi after the states’ approval.
While states like New Jersey and California have large Sikh populations, Singh said it’s equally important to include the topic in states with smaller Sikh populations like North Dakota. For some students, learning about Sikhism in the classroom means feeling represented for the first time.
“We think that the states where there may not be as many Sikhs also need inclusion because it could mean that the Sikh students in those schools or districts might be the only Sikh students there,” he said. “They might be particularly vulnerable to feeling like they’re not being seen or represented and may not have a gurdwara or a local community that they can go to.”
Singh believes that as school districts better understand what education should look like, students should be exposed to these subjects earlier.
“Ignorance breeds animosity, and one of the best ways to keep students safe is through inclusive education,” he said.
Each state has its standards for curriculum, and like all subjects, the units are scaffolded: With Sikhism, elementary school students are taught the basics of religion in their social studies classes, which middle school and high school classes later build on.
“It’s not enough for a student to learn about the Sikh community historically when they’re in the 11th grade, because up until that time, they’ve had no exposure to the community, and there’s no reference point,” Singh said.